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To lie or not to lie

by on October 31, 2014

The lecture presented by Maddy Blais and the NPR story “Retraction: This American Life” all served a purpose this week – to show us where journalists can go wrong. The temptation to make something up, exaggerate something or lie is great when praise and fame are on the line. But there is one thing we can’t ignore from both of last week’s classes that I think may pertain to us as students in particular: a lot of these journalists who made mistakes were young.

Janet Cooke was about 26 years old when she won the Pulitzer Prize for a shocking story about an eight year old child addicted to heroin, a story she completely made up. Steven Glass was exposed for his fabricated stories at the age of 25 and Jayson Blair, who made up stories for the New York Times, was about 27 when he was caught.

We also talked last class about a previous journalism student who had plagiarized a New York Times story for the Collegian, impeding their career for years after they graduated. So what does this mean? I think it serves as a lesson to us as students now, and journalists of the future. We have little experience, our writing needs work and we don’t have the contacts or connections some of the big name journalists we look up to have. So it’s tempting to make the same mistakes. The one little chance we won’t get caught calls out to us. Make up an amazing story, gain instant success and your career is set from there.

But what’s the moral of the story we learned from class this week? Don’t do this. Especially now. To a certain extent, I believe young journalists should be forgiven for mistakes they make. The student who plagiarized a story for the Collegian shouldn’t be forgiven immediately, but a mistake you make in college isn’t something you should have to deal with for the rest of your life. In a university setting, we are students and we mess up. This isn’t license to make everything up and enjoy the brief fame it brings us, but we shouldn’t be punished forever.

The lives of Cook, Glass and Blair are different. They were trusted by professional organizations to report the truth. Someone hired them, paid them and respected them to do a well-reported, professional job, and they didn’t. When you perform that type of betrayal in a professional setting, that’s when your professional career deserves to be branded. You know better than that.

So the biggest thing we can learn from class this week is the temptation to make up and plagiarize our stories is going to be highest now. Look at all the young journalists before us who have done the same. It’s a ticket to fame if you don’t get caught. But you will, and the consequences are something that you will have to live with for years to follow.


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  1. Kaitlin Boyer permalink

    I agree with your thoughts that everyone makes mistakes and that they shouldn’t have to have that hinder their success in the future. We as students are constantly learning everyday and obviously are going to make mistakes. But as you point out, you really should never plagiarize. It’s better to hand in the assignment late than make something up. Why risk your reputation? It’s not worth it and shouldn’t be done.

  2. Hearing stories about Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair are kind of like those fable stories you hear about how a bad person finally got caught for their wrong doings, except they were real. These were real professionals that put their job, themselves and their future careers on the line just to fake a story for glory.

    These stories set an example for young writers who aspire to work in the world of professionals and want jobs to report and inform to the public. What we write, we are responsible for. To take on that much responsibly, how could we lie and plagiarize and not think we would get caught? How can you work in an industry where your sole job is to seek the truth and inform?

    Then you hear stories that hit closer to home like the student from the Collegian who plagiarized a story. And you think wow, is it really that easy to slip up and make this huge mistake? I agree with you when saying that this mistake was a little smaller than Cook, Glass and Blair’s blunder. Because she was young and the pressures of college could have been a factor in her misleading’s she shouldn’t pay for it for the rest of her life, but have it as a lesson and a reminder to never do that again, especially in a real world professional setting. As a journalists, risks like these should not be something to deal with.

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